I never gave much thought to the little rituals of Valentine’s Day until I sat down to write this column. As I wrote, I began to see that the rituals of the day mirror the ways in which our understanding and definition of love develops over time.
From my elementary school days, I fondly recall the paper booklets with punch-out Valentines. They had simple and wholesome pictures with corny phrases that were amusing or promising, depending on your age. A six year old might laugh at a kitten meowing, “You’re purrfect”, while a ten year old might see an invitation in a card with the caption, “Let’s hang out”.
In those days, teachers did not require us to give everyone in the class a Valentine. Because my mother was ahead of her time, and insisted that no one be left out, everyone received a Valentine from me. Still, like the other girls, I had a hierarchy for giving Valentines. Best friends got the nicest cards. Casual acquaintances got nice cards, and classmates on the periphery got what was left. Selecting cards for the boys required an extra level of attention. While we girls got caught up in this foolishness, the boys were reluctant participants in the Valentine’s Day excitement, until it was time to eat the pink cupcakes with the cinnamon hearts.
From this early ritual of giving cards, I learned that Valentine’s Day was an opportunity for inclusiveness. I didn’t recognize this immediately because I was self-centered. I was absorbed in the number of Valentines in the paper bag taped to the side of my desk, and comparing them with those of my friends. My mother was right; it would have been horrible to be left out.
In the teenage years, when the boys were more interested, Valentine’s Day rituals celebrated puppy love. Valentine’s Day was about exclusivity. It was an opportunity for couples, or would be couples, to declare their affection in some way.
As a young mother, the focus of Valentine’s Day shifted to a celebration of family. Cards, special treats, and a heart-shaped cake made the day special. Our little rituals celebrated the uniqueness of each child, and the deep bonds within our family.
After thirty years of marriage, my appreciation for Valentine’s Day remains undiminished. My husband and I always acknowledge the day in some simple way. It’s a chance to express our gratitude for the gift of one another. This is a gratitude that grows deeper with each passing year, and is strengthened in the crucible of life’s joys and challenges. While romance need not fade away, Valentine’s Day is a gentle reminder that love is an act of the will in response to the complex emotions of the heart and the vicissitudes of life.
Valentine’s Day is a celebration of loving well. It celebrates the expansive force of love that moves us from self-absorption towards an ever-increasing awareness of others. For me, Valentine’s Day most profoundly expresses the self-giving love that characterizes the best in human relationships, and mirrors the self-emptying love of God.